11/12/2012 04:46 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Lincoln : A Modern Masterpiece

Abraham Lincoln is probably our most distinguished president; two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis may be our greatest living actor; and Steven Spielberg is certainly our best known and possibly our most gifted living director. The confluence of all three personalities in the motion picture Lincoln represents a singular blend of talent and potentiality.

The focus of this film is the battle to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution - banning slavery - during the last four months of Lincoln's life. But Lincoln is a work of art, not a documentary. Its aim is not only to convey a lesson in history, but to draw a deeper meaning and a moral vision from historical events.

The opening scene establishes the brutal backdrop against which the political drama plays out - the hand-to-hand combat characteristic of the Civil War, where death comes from a bayonet to the belly in the middle of a muddy field. Such carnage lends a sense of primal urgency to the political deliberations.

The film finds its moral compass in the multi-layered person of Lincoln, played with masterful subtlety by Day-Lewis. This Lincoln is not a larger-than-life figure cut in marble; he is as accessible and authentic as your next-door neighbor. Paradoxically, to exaggerate Lincoln is to diminish him; whereas to present him as an ordinary man, as Spielberg does, magnifies his extraordinary qualities.

Passage of the amendment to ban slavery, however obvious and inevitable it may seem to us today, appeared impossible to most informed observers at the time. Lincoln's cabinet was uniformly opposed to it, albeit for tactical reasons rather than intrinsic ones. The odds against passage in the House of Representatives seemed overwhelming to everyone - except to Lincoln.

In order to achieve the impossible, Lincoln had to martial all his internal resources. When the arguments against him were legal in nature, he countered with superior legal insight. When the arguments were tactical, he found other tactics. When the arguments were moral, he articulated a larger vision.

At every turn, he met the human beings who confronted him at their own level, and he mastered them on their common ground. His genius lay ultimately in his power of persuasion.

Much credit must go to the screenplay by Tony Kushner, which captures Lincoln's social skills and humanity to a fine degree. Lincoln displayed the same persona whether talking with common soldiers, the telegraph operator, his own son, or the vice-president of the Confederacy. He himself embodied the principle of equality that he fought so hard to enshrine in the thirteenth amendment.

Ultimately, therefore, Lincoln is not a biography, nor even a political thriller. Rather, it is a study in character, a finely etched portrait of a man whose moral purpose, political instincts, and common touch combined to produce perhaps the greatest moment in American history: the constitutional abolition of slavery.

Although it is a masterpiece, this film is not for the masses. It is too rich and complex, the pace too leisurely, the dialogue too intricate and subtle, to reach the audience it deserves. Time will tell whether it deserves a place next to City Lights and Citizen Kane; but there can be no question that, though it may not be for the masses, this is a film for the ages.